Monday, February 28, 2011

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead revolves around the life of Howard Roark, a young uncompromising, innovative architect who designs buildings which reflect his own creative spirit.  He does not imitate other architects or seek to incorporate classical designs from Ancient Greece, Rome or the Renaissance. A few people recognize the creative genius in Howard's designs. However most critics and the hoi polloi regard his work as grotesque or the projections of an egotist seeking to glorify his own soul.   That is the point - Howard is the supreme egotist.  These works are pulled from Howard's pure, free-thinking spirit, his identify, which is why they are so unique.

The Fountainhead has the best villain in any book I have read - Ellsworth Toohey.  Toohey is a brilliant writer, skillful orator, a leading architectural critic and Howard's implacable foe.  He is also one of the few people who recognize Howard's greatness, which is why he must destroy him.  Toohey desires equanimity in society; he does not want anyone to rise above the rest; he seeks conformity and unity.  He does however hide a secret agenda. While Toohey publicly gives away his own money and lectures on the rights and needs of the poor, he furtively maneuvers himself to gain power over other men.  Under the guise of magnanimity and altruism, Toohey is a duplicitous, manipulative power-hungry genius.  He's possibly the only character I know who could stab you in the back while getting you to agree it was for your own good.  Toohey tries to turn the public against Roark, attacking him in public through his newspaper column or by sabotaging deals with potential clients. Time and time again Roark loses clients, falls into debt, and closes his office only to come back renewed and stronger. 

Roark's devotion to his spiritual compass in contrasted with other characters in the novel.  Roark's friend and fellow architect Peter Keating is portrayed as an anti-hero - he has gained all the monetary rewards and recognition that his career can offer him but he is a fraud.  Keating gets his influence from classical buildings, does not have his own ideas, panders to the public desire and even claims Roark's drawings as his own. He is without a soul, but Toohey considers him the perfect tool to use against Roark.  In addition, Roark meets the newspaper magnate Gail Wynand, the most powerful man in New York City and they become intimate friends.  The Wynand newspapers play to the masses need for sensationalism. However, Wynand has never sacrificed his own personal integrity, which is what he has in common with Roark. Both men share the same passions and speak from their souls. However, Wynand has chosen a different route than Roark and values money and power.  At the end of the novel Wynand is undone when he has to choose between his principles and his financial empire. 

Ultimately, Roark comes out victorious by remaining true to himself, which is in no small part to his sense of purpose and supreme confidence. His enemies and the masses of people call him an egoist, although Roark celebrates this appellation.  "We must be selfish, without the self there is nothing." He doesn't live his life for other people, but for himself.  His self-esteem is not based on other people's opinions. His happiness is a private thing, his greatest moments are personal.  He can still love other people, but he does not live his life  for the benefit of anyone else. 

The Fountainhead is a long book and sometimes Rand presents her philosophy in rambling character dialogues that last several pages - it feels like being lectured to.  However, I did enjoy the read and I can appreciate the important points she raises about the significance of the individual.  I also agree that we should not base our happiness on the opinions of others or try to conform for its own sake. 

As Schopenhauer said, "We forfeit three-quarters of ourselves in order to be like other people".

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